The growing rift that could tear the working world apart

A new global survey on working from home in 34 countries reveals a growing and potentially damaging divide between what employees desire and what their companies intend to provide

It’s the schism that threatens to tear the new world of work asunder.

As the gap widens between what company bosses want (minimum slippage on a full-time return to the office) and what employees feel they need (maximum flexibility to work from home), the story right now is not so much how these two conflicting positions can be reconciled but whether it is even possible.

In the immediate aftermath of Covid-19, there was at least some mutual agreement on the desirability of at least some hybrid work. But as companies pull away from the pandemic, leaving lockdowns in the dust, any real consensus is fast disappearing.

The latest evidence to drive a wedge between the two sides comes in the form of a global survey from WHF Research, a consortium that includes Stanford University and the German thinktank Ifo Institute, which surveyed full-time employees in 34 countries on WFH (work from home) in April and May 2023. One of the authors of ‘Working from Home Around the Globe: 2023 Report’ is the leading hybrid work academic, Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom.

Significant gap

The study discovered a significant gap between the number of WFH days that employees desire and the number of WFH days that companies plan for their workforce. While employees would like to work at home on at least two days per week around the globe, employers only plan 1.1 WFH days per week. This gap is present in all 34 countries surveyed.

The survey also recorded a gap between the desired and the actual number of WFH days taken by employees. Around a quarter of respondents with WFH experience during the Covid-19 pandemic would like to work from home five days per week; 56 per cent would like to work in hybrid mode, from one to four days per week at home; 19 per cent would prefer to work fully on site. But these numbers differ strongly from the actual number of WFH days among employees with WFH experience: 46 per cent currently work fully on site, 41 percent in hybrid mode, and 13 per cent fully WFH.

Going back or moving on?

What these numbers tell us is that the pre-pandemic landscape of office-based work is being rebuilt by determined company bosses while their own employees feel they’ve moved on.

Look deeper at country comparisons and some interesting patterns emerge.

WFH levels are generally higher in English-speaking countries: full-time employees in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand worked an average of 1.4 full paid days per week from home compared to 0.7 days per week in the seven Asian countries covered by the survey and 0.8 days in European countries.

The gap between desired and planned WFH days is largest in Latin America and South Africa, where employees would like to work on average 1.3 days more from home than their employers plan for them. The gap is smallest in the English-speaking countries, where it amounts to 0.7 days on average.

Remote work brings a new digital twist to the age-old tussle between capital and labour. As The Economist observed: ‘It is no coincidence that the crackdown on remote work is happening as some industries cool. Job cuts across Wall Street and Silicon Valley have handed power back to businesses.’

But most of the recent attention has been US or UK-centric, focused on the pronouncements of high-profile CEOs such as Elon Musk, Sir James Dyson and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase. In other words, the Anglo-America arguments are out in the open.

‘A divide between business leaders and employees is also sitting just beneath the surface in Asia, Europe and Latin America…’

What WHF Research’s global survey reveals is that a potentially damaging divide between business leaders and employees is also sitting just beneath the surface in Asia, Europe and Latin America – a large swathe of the global working population. It’s just not been talked about so much.

Could the persistent desire among workers to work from home at least some of the week be the issue on which the new world of work unravels? From real-estate development to HR policy and office redesign, the implications are significant and need urgent attention.

More information on ‘Working from Home Around the Globe: 2023 Report’, by C.G. Aksoy, J.M. Barrero, N. Bloom, S.J. Davis, M. Dolls, P. Zarate, here.

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office. Read an interview with Jeremy Myerson on the future of hybrid working here.
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